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Brand PublishingBusiness+Luxury Vehicles

Unlikely Utility

Television Industry

Over the past 15 years, several German automakers previously associated with sports and luxury cars have successfully branched out into sport utility vehicles. BMW’s X Series and Porsche’s Cayenne crossover surprised dubious critics and consumers by becoming big-selling utes. Now, manufacturers even higher up the luxury food chain seem keen to follow suit. 

Maserati looks ready to take the plunge with its Levante crossover, Lamborghini and Bentley have unveiled SUV concept vehicles — the Urus and EXP 9 F, respectively — which appear destined for future production. Even Aston Martin and Spyker may soon join in the 4x4 fun.

“I learned my lesson after expressing skepticism about BMW’s release of the 2000 X5 — and had even greater reservations about Porsche’s 2003 Cayenne,” said Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor at Cars.com. “I wasn’t alone. Both models met widespread incredulity, though it was greater when Porsche made the move because Porsche was more purely a sports-car brand at the time.”

The X5 was developed at a time when BMW — which was traditionally known for smart sedans and wagons — owned British 4x4 specialists Land Rover. It benefited from that company’s technology and was able to share components with Land Rover’s pricey Range Rover. Billed as an “SAV” (sports activity vehicle) rather than an SUV, the X5 was designed as a sporting road car rather than a serious mudder.

The X5 sold well from the get-go, moving close to 27,000 units its first full year in the U.S. and over 40,000 in 2011. It has also spawned a small family of sister models: The small X3 crossover launched in 2003, the mid-size X6 in 2008 and the compact X1 in 2009.

When Porsche introduced the Cayenne in 2002 and American sales began the following year, Porsche purists were in an uproar. But for the Stuttgart-based company, it was important to reach out to a new demographic of drivers who required something more practical than a high-performance two-seater. It was also an opportunity to turn one-Porsche households into two-Porsche households.

“At the time, Porsche said its customers necessarily owned other, more versatile vehicles, and the company had determined the majority also owned SUVs,” Wiesenfelder said. “Not having a Porsche option was the only thing holding them back.”

Born out of a collaboration with Volkswagen, the Cayenne defied the doubters by quickly becoming Porsche’s best-selling model. Reviewing the 2003 Cayenne in March of that year, Motor Trend described it as “the best-handling and most-powerful sport-utility on the planet in terms of its on-road performance.… The shouting is over, and the Cayenne is an outstanding piece of work.”

But building an SUV still seemed risky for Porsche’s brand image as purveyors of sexy, sporty vehicles, and it could have turned off its core fan base.

“Once you accept the phenomenon, it’s no different from any other vehicle type: Execution and pricing are what truly matter,” Wiesenfelder said. “Had [Porsche] failed in this regard, perhaps the brand would have been damaged after all. I never again doubted a performance brand’s plans to add an SUV.”

Porsche sold nearly 13,000 Cayennes in the U.S. last year, up 56% from 2010, which represents more than 44% of the brand’s total American sales. The company is hoping to further grow its SUV market share with the smaller Macan crossover, which should be available by the middle of next year.

“I suspect the Macan will also do well,” Wiesenfelder said. “It’s likely to erode some Cayenne sales, but I expect an overall sales increase.”

Maserati should be the next luxury carmaker to release a 4x4, with its Levante crossover SUV due in dealerships next year. Built in the U.S. by Chrysler, which is part-owned by Maserati parent company Fiat, the Levante will utilize the same platform as Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, but with a much more shapely body featuring the shark-like front end common to modern Maseratis.

“This is another case where execution will determine the vehicle’s success,” Wiesenfelder said. “Some have predicted the Levante will be too heavy because it shares a platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee. A legitimate concern, but the first-generation Cayenne was needlessly heavy, and it didn’t seem to matter.”

Maserati plans to build 20,000 to 25,000 Levantes yearly.

China’s economic boom, which has created demand for opulent vehicles that can also cope with that country’s sometimes rugged roads, has encouraged even supercar makers to test the SUV waters.

British luxury brand Bentley unveiled its wagon-esque EXP 9 F concept sport utility at the Geneva Motor Show in March, with Italian automaker Lamborghini following with its stunning 600-horsepower Urus concept ute at the Beijing Auto Show. Both share platforms with the next-generation Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg and Audi Q7.

“I saw the Urus concept up close, and its outrageous appeal is unmistakable,” Wiesenfelder said. “Its designers and Lambo execs used language that convinced me this one’s a foregone conclusion as a real product.”

Boutique sports car marque Spyker has been touting its D8 Peking-to-Paris SUV around auto shows since 2006. According to the Dutch company, it will go into production next year. Luxury automaker Aston Martin has been rumored to be working on a production SUV since exhibiting its controversially styled Lagonda SUV concept in 2009.

“Nothing would surprise me, but any latecomer should be concerned about market saturation,” Wiesenfelder said. “Granted, all brands have their loyalists, but you need enough buyers to make such a venture worthwhile.”

 Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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